With its purse ratcheted up to $500,000, its distance stretched out to 1 1/8 miles, and its date moved to a more convenient spot on the calendar, Lone Star Park's derby became a genuine prep for the famed roseate run in Kentucky. The Grand Prairie, Texas, racetrack even created a $1-million bonus, to be paid to any horse that parlays a Lone Star Derby win into a victory in any of the Triple Crown races.
Yes, Lone Star had a genuine Kentucky Derby (gr. I) prep on April 7--a half-million dollar jackpot, a seven-figure bonus, a nine-furlong distance, a four-week interval. It was a meaningful prep indeed--an ironic one, too.
Percy Hope served up generous portions of both meaning and irony. The field, which included four stakes winners, had earned $1.2 million, or an average of $154,429 per starter, more than twice as much as the field for the grade II Illinois Derby. And Percy Hope, who previously had won the Rushaway Stakes at Turfway Park, once again made winning look easy.
The irony: After darting away from El Camino Real Derby (gr. III) winner Hoovergetthekeys, then defeating Louisiana Derby (gr. II) winner Fifty Stars by two lengths in Texas' first genuine Kentucky Derby prep, Percy Hope might not get to run in the Kentucky Derby. The Lone Star Derby is not graded, Percy Hope has no graded stakes earnings, and the Kentucky Derby field is limited to 20 starters based on graded stakes earnings.
No matter. Percy Hope's connections aren't certain they want to send their handsome son of Ide into the Kentucky Derby maelstrom anyway. "I'm not saying he won't run in the Kentucky Derby," trainer Tony Reinstedler said. "I really don't know where he's going to run. The Derby is a possibility, but we'll do whatever's in the best interest of the horse."
Another layer of meaning: Jon Court is not only a capable, but also a very good race-rider. As Percy Hope ran by the six-furlong pole, Court began counting silently to himself: "One-thousand-one, one-thousand-two, one-thousand-three..." Just after Court got to "one-thousand-six," Percy Hope reached the 5 1/2-furlong marker. Court smiled knowingly.
A sixteenth of a mile in about six seconds, a furlong in about 12, and Percy Hope in control of the pace--that was the sort of trifecta Court knew could enable them to withstand the late chargers. In fact, Percy Hope and Court controlled the pace as if they held it on a leash and had commanded it to heel. So when Fifty Stars charged, as he always does, Percy Hope had sufficient energy to persevere, stopping the teletimer in 1:50.27. Gift of the Eagle finished another three-quarters back in third. Hoovergetthekeys, the even-money favorite, faded to seventh in the field of eight after making a brief bid in the second turn.
"I thought there would be a couple in there that would go for it (the early lead)," Court said, "but when I was counting the poles and the pace, I couldn't believe it."
Percy Hope jumped out of the gate with a slim advantage. To his inside, Take a Gamble disputed the pace. They led the field through a yawning half in :48.11 and six furlongs in 1:12.76. Even eyeballing his rival, however, Percy Hope relaxed.
"I knew there were some serious closers in the field," Court said, "so I hoped to get Percy Hope to relax so he could finish strongly. I felt like when we turned into the stretch, somebody was going to have to really do some running to catch me because I had a fresh horse."
Hoovergetthekeys surged momentarily in the second turn, recalling his victories at Golden Gate, but then he retreated. Fifty Stars rallied boldly, but never suggested he was going to catch Percy Hope.
With the victory, Percy Hope earned $292,500 for his owners, cousins Thomas Willmott of Boston and Peter Willmott of Chicago.
"I think the chances are much better now that we'll take a poke at the Triple Crown," Thomas Willmott said, suggesting the Preakness (gr. I) might be the spot for Percy Hope's Triple Crown appearance. Reinstedler also indicated the Preakness would be attractive.
But at least one Lone Star starter is going to the Kentucky Derby. Fifty Stars had punched his ticket weeks earlier in New Orleans, and in rallying from last to finish second at Lone Star, he did nothing to suggest he doesn't belong in the Kentucky Derby field.
"I'm proud of the horse," said Fifty Stars' trainer, Steve Asmussen, pointing out the slow pace compromised the colt's chances. "He looked like he always does--beautiful in running and wanting to go forever."